A unique dining experience in the backways of Seoul

Seoul Travel Blog

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the road from Incheon
I arrived at Incheon around 7pm and took one of those organized buses into the city. I had just spent the last two weeks traveling through China and I was a little burnt by this point, so I hadn't done any homework beforehand. I realized I had no clue where I was being taken. I randomly picked a youth hostel from my rough guide and showed the driver. Just to illustrate how courteous the Korean people are, the driver, who didn't know where my hostel was, pulled the bus over to take a better look and called the hostel on his cel phone while everyone else on the bus waited patiently. It turned out that the hostel was full, but they offered to send a taxi for me so I could check out some of the neighboring hotels.
the long alleyway
Blown away by the kindness, I accepted.          
          
I got out of the taxi and wandered around old town until I found a cheap hotel. I was by myself (as usual) so i took a walk after putting my bags down and taking a shower. I stumbled down this looooooong little alleyway and ran into a whole batch of bulgogi (korean bbq) shops - the alley was filled with tables, each with a little fire pit or grill in the middle of it. Each shop blended into the next one, the waitresses dashing into and out and flitting between this shop and that, like there were no specific boundaries between them...  It was a fantastic. I stopped, lit up a cigarette and watched the bustle.
my table

          
It was about 9 o'clock, which is a pretty common time to eat dinner in Korea, and the whole alley way was filled with Koreans - not another foreigner in sight.. I love that. So I sat down at a table and lit up another cigarette. Eventually a woman proprietor came over and sat down at my table with me. A little suprised, I said hello. She started to talk -- I presume she was asking me what I wanted to eat.. I dunno really, it was in Korean, which I didn't speak. So I pointed to the meat on the table of the rowdy Koreans next to me and made the international symbol of drinking beer (cheers, tilt the head back, and down the hatch). I looked at her to see if she understood.          
          
She nearly had a fit laughing.
the remnants of the perfect meal
She grabbed some other waitresses nearby and obviously told them about my charade and they started laughing too. I was more concerned with whether or not they were going to bring me a beer than I was embarrassed, so I smiled politely until they calmed down. One waitress braved an english word.          
          
"Burr," she said.          
          
"YES!" I said delighted. "Beer! One, please," and held up a finger.          
          
The beer was brought and within a couple minutes I had a feast laid out on my table around the grill, complete with various kimchis, single leaves of lettuce and mint, dipping sauces, mushrooms, onions, chunks of garlic and what looked like collared greens.
neon...
Finally the meat was brought out to me on a gigantic platter. I put 2 or 3 slices of meat on the grill in the center of the table, along with some mushrooms and garlic.          
          
I sat there, nursing the meat on the grill, waiting for it to cook when the woman proprietor came out again. She looked at me quizzically, sort of smirked to herself and sat down at my table again. She gently took the prongs from my hand and proceeded to place over half of the meat from the platter onto the grill. She then took the meat I had already put on the grill and placed it on a leaf of lettuce. She indicated to eat it.           
          
I sat there in a amused state of shock and wondered if she was going to feed it to me as well.
and neon...
She motioned again and I couldn't help but smile at how casual the whole Korean eating experience was. I wasn't sure if it was because I was a foreigner and she thought I didn't know how to feed myself, or maybe it had nothing to do with the color of my skin - perhaps it was because I was by myself and she was sitting with me and tending my food so I wouldn't have to eat alone. I looked around again. I was certainly the only one eating alone. I don't know, perhaps it was a combination of both, with a little bit of curiousity mixed in.          
          
As I was letting my thoughts run, she had taken the lettuce-wrapped meat, mushroom and garlic in her hand and I believe would have fed it to me had I not placed my hand out to take it.
and more neon...
I decided that I was enjoying this unexpected intimacy afterall, and put the whole thing in my mouth.          
          
Oh my god, the flavor. I was suddenly swept far from the table, eyes flitting up into the back of my head, up and out the top, 50 feet into the air and back down into jaw-chewing ecstacy. Juices splashed around my gums and between my teeth and ignited tastebuds that I never knew were there.    
          
When I came back down to earth, I raised my eyebrows and rubbed my stomach in the universal sign for "Fuckin A, that tasted AMAZING!" The woman across from me smiled and continued to tend my grill.
and oh yes, more neon...
She added some vegetables and urged me to eat some of the kimchis while I was waiting.          
          
This process went on. When there was space on the grill, she added more meat. When my glass became half empty, she filled it to the top. Occasionally, two couples at the table next to me would suddenly grow quiet, glance in my direction and snicker discreetly, but the vibe was friendly and I had to admit, I was amused too.          
          
Eventually the last of the meat and vegetables were on the grill and the woman gave me back the tongs, stood up and went back in to the shop without a word. I was a little sad that the experience was over, but also glad at the same time because I was full and didn't want to eat anymore.          
          
I lit a cigarette and watched the people eating around me.          
          
The next time my girl came out again, I caught her and indicated that I wanted to pay my bill. She said something and I had no clue how much it was (I hadn't learned my numbers in Korean yet), so I gave her 30,000 won (about $20 dollars), which was probably twice the amount... but I figured she'd earned it.   
          
She didn't seem to notice the overpayment - just smiled politely and walked back inside. As I stood up to leave, one of the couples from the table next to me said, "Herro" in unison. I said "Hello" back and I heard them giggling as I walked away.

(This is a section of my journal from the time I spent in Asia. I visited Korea in the summer of 2006)
carpefunk says:
I'm a year late in answering you, but I hope you made it to Korea, and I doubly hope that you made it back safely. I managed just fine without speaking a lick of Korean, although I tried my hardest to pick up as much of the language as I could while I was there. As for traveling alone... like all things in life, the greater the challenge, the bigger the rewards. Good luck and be brave
Posted on: Jul 31, 2014
camilandm says:
Hi! I really enjoyed your story...it seems that korean people are really nice and friendly... I want to ask you something... I wanna go to Korea... maybe alone, do you think will be hard for me? I dont speak any korean
Posted on: Jun 17, 2013
reikunboy says:
Awesome blog, loved the story.
Posted on: Oct 13, 2012
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the road from Incheon
the road from Incheon
the long alleyway
the long alleyway
my table
my table
the remnants of the perfect meal
the remnants of the perfect meal
neon...
neon...
and neon...
and neon...
and more neon...
and more neon...
and oh yes, more neon...
and oh yes, more neon...
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photo by: chiyeh